Printing Photos and Soft-Proofing

Sooner or later you’re going to print one of your photos and you’re going to be disappointed by the result. The photo is most likely going to look too dark and the colors are going to be ‘off.’

This is a disheartening thing. You’ve spent so much time getting the photo to look perfect on the screen, and then when it returns from the printer it looks like crap! But know this – you are not alone. This happens to everyone. Here’s how to avoid it or at least see it coming:

  1. Calibrate your monitor. I use an “Eye One Display 2” colorimeter to calibrate my monitor. It is really easy to use as you just install the software, plug in the hardware (colorimeter), hang the colorimeter over the monitor screen, and it calibrates automatically. It can be a little more complicated than that as you have to choose the color temperature (I choose 6500K) and the Gamma (I choose 2.2). Monitors have more options to calibrate as well, but trust me, you can do it easily. The set-up runs about $150, but it is worth it when you consider that you may have been “fixing up” your photos to look good only on one monitor – yours. Your photos posted on the web were being seen differently by everyone else!
  2. Set your color space.There are three (3) main color spaces in use:
    • ProPhoto RGB – the most colors, used by Lightroom when viewing photos
    • Adobe RGB – more than sRGB but less than ProPhoto
    • sRGB – the safest amount of color allowed – will view correctly on all monitors – best for web viewing also

    What does this mean? It means that your “rendering” options should be set accordingly. By “rendering” I mean when you take your RAW file and convert it to a JPEG. (You are working in RAW right?) Lightroom, for example, has settings on export that allow you to select the color space. Choose sRGB. I mean it. I have read a lot about this and the consensus is to always use sRGB. Printing places are set up to accept sRGB more than they are any of the other color spaces. Ditto for the web postings. If you want your photos to look good on other people’s monitors, then you have to render your JPEGs in sRGB.

  3. Know your printing output device. If the printer you use to print your photos is hooked up to your computer then you probably know the model number of it. I print to web-based printers (Bay Photo Labs, Mpix, etc.) or go to the local Wal-Mart or Meijers with my memory card in hand. I can find out what printers they are using either by looking at their equipment when I am in the store or by finding their printer types on the web (Bay Photo Labs lists theirs on their site). What good is this, you ask? Read on.
  4. Install your printing device’s ICC profile. An ICC profile is a profile that describes to your computer what the printer is capable of reproducing. Download the ICC profile of your printer or printing house to your computer. Right click on it and select ‘install.’ That is it. You’re done.
  5. Soft-proof. That ICC profile you installed can now be used to tell your photo-viewing software to render a proof (test photo) of what your photo will look like when printed. Adobe Photoshop has this capability built-in. Lightroom 4 now has soft proofing and it is really easy to use (maybe more in another post, but just try it and you will see how easy it is).  For users of Lightroom 3 or earlier, a plug-in is available that allows soft-proofing in Lightroom. It is inexpensive (<$20) and exactly what is needed! It is available from http// and I highly recommend that you purchase it. With soft-proofing, whichever software you use, you will be able to see exactly what your print will look like when it is printed. With this information, you can go back into your software (like Lightroom) and make adjustments to the photo and soft-proof again and again until you get the output you want. Stack the soft proof with your original photo in Lightroom and you will always have it there to know what it would look like if printed. If you make changes to the original, then proof again.
  6. Alternatively, hard-proof. Hard-proofing is basically just printing your photo and taking your chances, then correcting the photo and trying again. It is expensive and time-consuming and not recommended.
  7. Alternatively, and not recommended, recalibrate your monitor to your printer. This means you have to set up your monitor’s controls (brightness, levels, color) to match your hard-proofed print. Plus you will have to look at a poorly colored monitor image all of the time, making it impossible to know what web-based viewers of your images are really seeing. Again, time-consuming and not recommended.

The image on this page is a screen shot of the soft proof plug-in screen that is shown when you soft proof an image in Lightroom 3. It shows you side-by-side how the image looks on your monitor (left) and how it will look when printed (right). For the various profiles, I did some hard-proofing by ordering prints and comparing. This soft-proof comes close, but is still a bit lighter than the printed version, so err on the side of lightness in your images and when using this plug-in. The most-likely causes of this “darker output than shown,” are a) the ICC profile is not exactly like the printer’s process, b) the soft-proofing assumes the photo will be viewed in bright light, that is not always the case. All-in-all though, this is much better than being fooled and let down when it comes to printing your photos.

When soft-proofing, turn on the “black-point compensation” as this will make sure you get the blacks that are in your photo represented properly. But, turn off the “simulate white paper” as this is rarely accurate enough to be meaningful.

Start soft-proofing your photos and getting that output you expect and deserve from your printer or photo lab!